Editor’s Note: The following contains slight spoilers for BioShock, Mass Effect, Fallout, inFamous, and Fable, but honestly those games are pretty old by now.
One day, I was playing inFamous for the PS3, hunting down one of the main baddies whose evil plan basically boiled down to collecting garbage. As I approached him, loudly reciting Empire City’s bylaws about littering, I came upon a mob scene: an innocent civilian was being hung by a lamppost, screaming for help. I was faced with a choice. “Hm,” I said in Cole’s stupid gravelly voice (seriously what’s up with that?), “I could save her, but Trashman might get away if I stop to help.”
I saved her. It took two seconds. And far as I know, nothing in the mission changed. I found the guy fine, and if combat was ramped up or something because of my good deed, I didn’t notice. Ding! Instant good karma!
If there’s one thing I can’t stand in games it’s a morality system. It’s almost never done right. The mechanic is shoehorned into games that don’t need it to give an illusion of choice where none is present. And these aren’t indie titles: the biggest games in the business all suffer from the same plight. And for the most part, they are done poorly. So why bother?
As in the inFamous example above, most game morality systems include a curious lack of consequence or sacrifice. If you choose the “bad” option, it doesn’t affect the game beyond knocking some of your karma and/or changing the ending. The “good” choice, on the other hand, often requires nothing extra of you. In most games with a morality system, it’s just way too easy to be good just by playing the game as you normally would.
Fallout 3‘s mechanic was simple enough – good deeds beget good karma, stealin’ and murderin’ not so much – but the game suffered from many of the same issues. Even though you could do whatever you wanted in the game, you had to try really hard to be bad. The vast majority of the enemies in the game give you good karma just for killing them. Even if you are playing as a bad guy, some of the enemies, like feral ghouls, are unavoidable positive karma, and you can accidentally become the hero of the world even though two seconds ago you sold a family of five into slavery. It’s almost like the game is trying to guide you in the “good” direction, which undermines the whole point of having choice in the first place. Also, how does having an external morality system even make sense in the context of the game? It’s a freakin’ apocalypse. All of civilization has fallen. Ok, so I’m the “messiah” of the wasteland? To whom? It’s completely out of place.
Sometimes the choices will seem tough, but are ultimately pointless. Here’s another from Infamous: in the beginning of the game, you locate a food drop, and are given the choice of either allowing the hungry civilians to enjoy it, or scaring them away so that you and your fat friend can take it all for yourselves. By itself, it seems ambiguous. But there is no consequence for either choice other than a small change in karma. If you let them have it, you don’t lose out on anything. If you take it all for yourself, you don’t get any extra food-based powers, you just look like an asshole.
With many of these types of systems, developers like to point out when you are making a moral choice: “Ooo, what will you choose, player?” But moral choices have to be organic, like in The Walking Dead games by Telltale. Just about every time you are faced with a decision, you a required to choose something quickly, to simulate a real-life encounter, and the game never eases you along one way or the other. The second you point them out with a neon sign makes it seem like they’re just thrown in.
Of course, even forcing the player to make choices on the fly doesn’t always work because 90% of the time the choices are not balanced at all. I call this the “kill the puppy/save the puppy” paradox. Basically, when faced with a decision, the bad option tends to be way more extreme compared to the good option. The good option on the other hand is basically “neutral,” or something that any decent person would do anyway in real life. So: do you murder the puppy, or not? The choice is yours! But not killing the puppy somehow makes other characters think I’m a saint even though there was no risk involved in the choice. The entire system in BioShock revolved around saving or murdering little girls. Even in a game as universally praised as that, there is literally no reason to be bad. In fact, by not saving the Little Sisters, you end up missing out on some of the most useful powers in the game.
The best example I can think of to illustrate this point is the Mass Effect series. Although the franchise always had moral choices, ME2 introduced the idea of instant actions that could be performed during cutscenes. Basically, a prompt would appear on screen that would let you interrupt the scene with a good or bad action (color-coded of course). The problem was there was no way of knowing what was going to happen when you pressed the button. Let’s say I wanted to be Han Solo: a rogue but good guy. So when my Shepard was doing an interview with an annoying reporter who was clearly trying to spin my story for ratings, a red prompt appeared on screen. Thinking that Shepard would simply tell her to fuck off, I pressed it. Shepard punched her in the face What? Who does that? It took me completely out of the character, and after that I couldn’t trust trying out the bad option without fear of it being way too over-the-top.
Now compare this to one of the “good” actions you can perform. At one point in the game you are on a mission with Tali who is devastated to find her father’s dead body. A blue prompt appears, and pressing it causes Shepard to…give her a hug? Who wouldn’t do that in that situation? It requires no sacrifice. What’s the point of even having that option? In fact, in ME3 they added even more paragon interruptions that involve just hugging someone. It’s impossible to play as a “morally grey” character without coming off like a maniac who goes around giving bear hugs one minute and literally pushing a guy out a hundred-story window the next.
So how do we fix this? There has to be a system that can keep track of your underlying moral standings without intruding into the gameplay mechanics. I think the solution would be to give players even less feedback about where they are morally while role-playing a character. Stop all the pop-ups and obvious good/bad choices. Focusing more on the reaction of NPC’s around you would be a far more interesting mechanic than the robotic nature of the “game” rewarding you like a Pavlovian dog.
This is why having this bland morality system in these games is such a disappointment, because it would be the perfect medium for it to be made right. Think about Infamous: You’re an average Joe superhero with incredible powers. As your powers grow it becomes harder and harder to destroy the bad guys without collateral damage. You weigh your options: do I deal a huge death blow and risk blowing up that school bus in the process, or do I drag the battle out for a couple minutes using weaker powers? But maybe if I kill him now, it will save even more people. The civilians should be directly in your way. Make them clog up the roads when you’re trying to get by. Make them rely on you for everything, to the point that they become entitled and arrogant. Make some of them turn on you, and then you have to decide if you want to fry one as an example to the others (they toy with this a little, but it doesn’t go far enough). That’s the superhero game I want to see.
So, what about games that are a step in the right direction? Buried in the lists of outlandish features that Peter Molyneux promised for Fable II was a legitimate concept of a real choice system. Permanence was a big part of the game, since you could only have one save, and it autosaved after everything you did. This made for some tough choices. In one room, you have the option of sacrificing your character to save the life of a strange woman, but doing so made your guy permanently uglier. Ok, so that’s a little extreme, but it sure had you weighing the options. Though even Molyneux couldn’t resist including the traditional black and white good/evil structure. Every time you did something good a little angel halo appeared over your head. Thanks, I wasn’t aware that saving the peasant from being axed to death was the nice option.
Fallout: New Vegas was in a great position to change the mechanic introduced in number three. The game introduced a new “reputation” system that made way more sense. Each tribe you met in game had a separate opinion of you, which shaped the missions you received and how you evolved your character. But, inexplicably, they still kept the normal vanilla morality system on top of all that. Why? The game even dug into grey areas about who the “good” guys really were (The NCR is a stable but somewhat corrupt government bogged down by the chains of bureaucracy, whereas the Legion value individual freedom but members pledge their lives to a savage cause). But you’re awarded good karma for killing legion members, so hasn’t the game already decided who the bad guys are for you?
A big chunk of the problem can be traced to the fact that ultimately, we are the hero in the story. As much fun as being the bad guy sometimes is, it always feels like fan fiction. Clearly the “good” endings are the “right” ones. Maybe we just like constant dopamine-fueled reinforcement that what we are doing is right, and it’s no different than a high score or an achievement for beating a level. We just like things to be simple – a light side, and a dark side (it’s probably not a coincidence that World War II is the most exploited war in gaming). But games have the potential to be the most innovative storytelling medium in history, and we should explore more beyond binary choices. After all, who wouldn’t save the puppy?